2019 Was a Great Year for Long Island Wine Country

Photo courtesy of Lieb Cellars

The last days of December are always a time of year to reflect—to think about all of the things that happened throughout the year (good and bad) and ponder what you might like the next year to be like. 

I tasted a lot of great wine—Long Island and otherwise—in 2019 and I expect that to continue in 2020. There is so much good-to-great wine being made locally these days, it’s honestly more surprising when I taste something that isn’t very good. At least at the wineries I visit and taste most. 

Instead of listing the best wines I tasted (though maybe that’s something I’ll keep better track of and do a year from now) I’ve really been thinking about the Long Island experiences that were the most memorable as I look back on 2019. Some happened at wineries and can be replicated by most any wine lover. Others happened off of the Island or would be a bit tougher to duplicate. 

Barrel Tasting at Jamesport Vineyards

Photo by Lenn Thompson

2019 was the year that Jamesport Vineyards worked its way back onto my “must visit” list when out-of-town wine lovers contact me asking about where they should taste. I spent the better part of a morning early in the year tasting and talking with winemaker Dean Babiar, who arrived at the winery in 2014 and whose impact on the wines has been significant and intentional. He has worked and continues to work closely with owner-grower Ron Goerler, Jr. to evolve their approach both in the vineyard and in the cellar. He’s pushing for brighter wines that express the North Fork in its uniqueness and deliciousness. Babiar has revamped the barrel program and is making fresher tasting wines as he continues to experiment with different grape varieties and fermentation techniques. The 2017 reds have started to hit the market now. They are game-changers. 

Charcuterie and Bubbly Outside at Lieb Cellars

Photo by Lenn Thompson

If you read this column even occasionally, you’ve probably noticed how much I think hospitality, service and the overall tasting experience matters. They don’t matter as much as wine quality, but they matter quite a bit—and the team at Lieb Cellars’ tasting room get it all right. The cheese and charcuterie boards are always delicious (and they change regularly) and on a sunny summer day, there are few places I’d rather be out on the deck at Lieb with one of those boards in front of me with a glass of sparkling rose in my glass. 

Pizza and Wine at Macari Vineyards

Photo by Lenn Thompson

One of my goals in 2020 is to eat lunch at every North Fork tasting room that offers something lunch-worthy, but in 2019, most of my favorite wine country lunches were the outstanding pizzas from Avelino Pizza, from a beautiful truck parked behind Macari Vineyards’ Bergen Road tasting room. Owner Ed Macari and pizzaiolo Michael Vigliotti use only the best ingredients and long-fermented dough results in pies that are satisfying without weighing one down. You can’t do much better than a pie (or two) and a tasting of winemaker Kelly Koch’s always-food-friendly wines. I’m partial to the diavolo pie with the 2015 Reserve Cabernet Franc.

A Tasting with Two Generations of Winemaker at Paumanok Vineyards

Photo by Lenn Thompson

A lot of local wineries claim “family-owned and operated” but I don’t think any family more directly involved in every facet of their winery’s business than the Massouds at Paumanok Vineyards. Back in July, I got to spend some time with co-owner and original winemaker Charles Massoud as well as his son Kareem who took over winemaking duties in the early 2000s. Of course the course of a couple of hours, we tasted a wide range of wines and talked about everything from the different client bases at Paumanok and Palmer Vineyards (which the Massouds now own), the rebirth of the Long Island Wine Council, cabernet sauvignon clones, new vineyard plantings, the unique challenges a growing family presents for a family business and beyond. I will always take any opportunity that I can to spend time with such knowledgeable, generous people as the Massouds. I always learn something new. Ever single time.

Tasting Wines from Clovis Point at the New York Wine Classic

Photo by Lenn Thompson

The past couple of summers, it has been my honor to judge the New York Wine Classic—the largest and most-important New York-only wine competition. I get to taste a lot of wines that I don’t taste regularly and this year that included some of the most compelling North Fork red wines I tasted all year – from Clovis Point Vineyard. You won’t find those wines outside of their tasting room much, but wines like Clovis Point 2015 Vintners Select Merlot and Clovis Point 2017 Petit Verdot are well worth the visit to the tasting room. These are destination wines.